School lunch hassles bedevil kids, boards

STONINGTON — Sometimes it takes an endowment and a Facebook fundraiser to provide children with school lunch.

That’s the case in Blue Hill and Deer Isle-Stonington and in parts of Maine farther afield.

Deer Isle-Stonington parents received a memo earlier this month that students with unpaid lunch balances of $50 or more would no longer be allowed to charge meals.

Instead of hot lunch, the school would give those children a Sunbutter sandwich and milk.

This bothered Deer Isle mother of two Liz Perez who, incidentally, serves on the School Board.

Perez launched a Facebook fundraiser in honor of her Feb. 3 birthday with hopes of raising $1,500 to pay off the lunch balances for those children with high balances.

Apparently, she wasn’t the only one bothered by the memo. Perez raised $2,183 in less than 24 hours.

The school lunch issue was an agenda item at a School Board meeting a few days later.

Heidi Shepard, a Stonington mother, told the board that with the small school enrollments, everyone in the lunchroom is going to know who’s having a Sunbutter sandwich and milk. (Sunbutter is a brand name of a spread made from sunflower seeds.)

School Union 76 Superintendent Christian Elkington said the district allows students to charge even though the Maine Department of Education advises against it.

Elkington said his last three school districts didn’t allow charging lunch.

“We make multiple attempts to get parents or guardians to work with us,” Elkington said. That includes multiple bills sent home, calling parents and sending them applications for free and reduced lunch. The school is happy to work out a payment arrangement, the superintendent said.

As it is, the school nutrition program does not support itself even though the program is supposed to break even, Elkington said.

School Board member Skip Greenlaw said it sounds as if there’s “no perfect solution.”

Elkington concurred. He said the only perfect solution is to provide free lunch for everyone, which former Superintendent Mark Jenkins implemented in 2015-16. But it proved too expensive. Elkington eliminated the free lunch when he arrived in 2016.

Meanwhile, at George Stevens Academy, roughly a third of the students experience “food insecurity,” according to Headmaster Tim Seeley.

Those students would qualify for free or reduced lunch, if the school participated in the federal program. However, GSA does not participate because of the numerous restrictions involved, Seeley said.

However, the school has a $100,000 endowment to support the school’s nutrition program. The income from the endowment isn’t sufficient to support the shortfall in the nutrition program, so Seeley fundraises.

Last year, the father of a GSA boarding student from China donated $50,000 for the program.

Meanwhile, Maine legislators have been trying in recent years to cook up a solution to school lunch shortfalls.

Former Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Washington County) was scheduled to testify in Augusta Wednesday, Feb. 13, about “An Act to Prevent Food Shaming in Maine’s Public Schools,” LD 167.

However, the hearing was postponed due to the weather.

LD 167 is a reincarnation of legislation that Maker wrote when she was in office, said the bill’s current sponsor, Rep. Jan Dodge (D-Belfast).

Dodge said Maker’s bill, LD 1684, “An Act Regarding Meals in Public Schools,” received bipartisan support but wasn’t brought forward for a final vote in the 128th Legislature.

The food shaming bill, if it passes, “allows for students to be served a lunch in spite of the fact they may have a meal debt,” Dodge said via email.

“The situation of one student receiving a hot lunch of taco, fruit, cookie and milk on a lunch tray and a student with debt a sandwich … is an example of the situation this bill hopes to correct,” Dodge said.

LD 167 also stipulates that food cannot be used as part of a disciplinary action and communication about money owed for meals must be with the parent or guardian.

Back to Maker. The former senator said that before she ran for office she walked a lot and would walk with a neighbor child on his route to school.

One morning Maker was a little late starting her walk and the boy told her he hoped he got to school in time to eat because his mother never fed him breakfast and he was afraid he wouldn’t get any.

To that end, Maine Sen. Marianne Moore (R-Washington County) is introducing another bill dubbed, “breakfast after the bell,” to help that situation, Maker said.

The president of the Maine Education Association, Lois Kilby-Chesley, testified in January 2018 about Maker’s bill.

“I wish we didn’t need to legislate feeding hungry children,” Kilby-Chesley stated. “But if even one child in our community is denied food or humiliated because of a parent’s negligence, we need to do something.”

On a related note, Tracey Hair, executive director of the HOME Co-op, which includes homeless shelters and a food pantry, said she would like people to stop using the term “food insecurity.”

The term is “hunger,” Hair said at a recent meeting in Blue Hill to discuss homelessness.

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